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Michael O’Neill says young Northern Ireland squad ‘has a lot of potential’

SoccerNews in General Soccer News 21 Mar 2024

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Michael O’Neill believes 2024 can bring a “rebirth” for Northern Ireland but knows he must also forge a new identity for his young team.

A hugely disappointing Euro 2024 qualifying campaign that was ruined by injuries forced O’Neill to accelerate the rebuilding process Northern Ireland knew was coming, and the next steps will be seen in friendlies now and in June before the Nations League returns in September.

A new generation spearheaded by the likes of Conor Bradley, Isaac Price, Trai Hume and Shea Charles offers great hope – as did November’s 2-0 win over Denmark – but O’Neill knows he must now mould this inexperienced squad into a team that can play to their collective strengths.

“I don’t think it’s a reset, I think it’s a rebirth if I’m honest,” O’Neill said. “This is a new group of players.

“I think we (are in double figures) in our group that have never been capped or are in single figures in caps so they are at the very start of their international careers.

“A lot of them are at the start of their club careers as well. I think this is a new team that’s being developed.

“We really only have what I would say are four experienced players with us and this team has a lot of potential but it needs time.”

When Northern Ireland reached Euro 2016 under O’Neill, they were known for their ability to soak up pressure and then nick a goal, often through set-pieces, to compete against higher-ranked opposition.

O’Neill said that finding an identity for this group was “essential”.

“I think any team that does well requires an identity,” he said. “The players have to buy into that as well and trust the work that we do. They all play in different styles of football at their clubs.

“If you look at Conor Bradley playing for Liverpool that’s going to be different to the style of play Eoin Toal plays at Bolton so it is about bringing all of that into the mix and creating our own identity that works for us.

“Any good Northern Ireland team is good when the opposition has the ball and that’s what we have to work really hard on.

“We demonstrated that in the game against Denmark and the next phase of the development of the team is to always be that but also to be as productive as we can be as well…

“We will ask players to step up in level so we are asking players who play in League One in England to step up against players playing at higher levels across Europe. The most important thing is that our players show they can deal with that. I’ve every confidence they will.”

Sunderland defender Hume, who last week received the award he won in December as Northern Ireland’s player of the year, said there was a high level of confidence in the group after the qualifying campaign ended on a high note with the win over Denmark in Belfast.

“We are a a young squad, we have to keep building,” the 22-year-old said. “The last campaign we lost a lot of games very closely so it’s a tough one to take but beating Denmark 2-0, I hope for a lot of players we can build on that, we can gain confidence going into these games.”

Dan Ballard will miss Friday’s game in Bucharest after becoming a father for the first time but could return for Tuesday’s match against Scotland in Glasgow, when O’Neill also hopes to have Jamal Lewis and Ross McCausland back in the group after injury.

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